Christopher Cramer is Professor of the Political Economy of Development at the SOAS Department of Development Studies. His recent work has included the DfID funded project Fairtrade, Employment and Poverty Reduction in Ethiopia and Uganda.
I recently asked the owner of a blueberry producing firm in South Africa whether he would consider the packet of fresh plump blueberries on the table between us a manufactured product. After all, the berries embodied the technology of genetic variety development (in California), carefully monitored planting, weeding, spraying and advanced irrigation technology, not to mention post-harvest care and packaging. ‘More than that’, he said, rolling a blueberry between his fingers ‘this is a pill – blueberries are part of big pharma’. With their superfood kudos, blueberries get the company a lot of free advertising.
So a blueberry is a high-tech pharmaceutical product, a pill. Meanwhile, a fresh orange bought in a Europe or the US has more technology embedded within in it, is higher value, and is more ‘processed’ in some respects, than a carton of orange juice squashed from poorer quality oranges.
Globally, agriculture is not only big business – it is also industrial business. It encompasses the increasing use of the genetics of plant stock, water-saving micro and nano irrigation, waste-reducing targeted nutrient supply and pesticide application and post-harvest ‘ripening facilities’. It also entails the need for new IT systems to monitor and ensure traceability of every batch of avocados, macadamia nuts or oranges to meet demanding phyto-sanitary regulations, the complex logistics and infrastructure of packhouses, ports and airport cold storage, as well as sophisticated advances in packaging, labelling, and branding. All these processes and technologies amount to the industrialisation of freshness.